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Oversight agency failed to release video, audio, documents within 60 days of police use-of-force incidents: report

The 60-day release policy was recommended in 2016 by the Task Force on Police Accountability amid the furor that followed the court-ordered release in 2015 of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

Police dashcam footage that captured the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Police dashcam footage that captured the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Chicago Police Department/Distributed by the Associated Press

For the second time in a week, Chicago’s inspector general is taking aim at the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — this time for failing to release video, audio, and police documents within 60 days of an incident involving use of force by police.

The 60-day release policy was recommended in 2016 by the Task Force on Police Accountability co-chaired by then Police Board President Lori Lightfoot in the furor that followed the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

The recommendation was promptly embraced by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was under fire at the time for keeping video of the October 2014 McDonald shooting under wraps for more than a year and waiting until one week after the April 7, 2015 mayoral runoff to authorize a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family — even before a lawsuit had been filed.

On Tuesday, Deborah Witzburg, Chicago’s newly-appointed deputy inspector general for public safety, released a report accusing COPA of falling short on a reform crucial to restoring the trust between citizens and police in the African American community shattered by the McDonald shooting and more recently undermined by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

After reviewing 122 cases over a three-year period, Witzburg found 33 instances where the 60-day policy was violated.

Several problems contributed to the 27 percent non-compliance rate:

• COPA “miscalculated” a release deadline or was late to identify an incident as one mandating the release of video, audio and written police reports within 60 days.

• The agency did not receive video and audio files from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications “in time to post them within the 60-day window.” Of 352 use of force incident requests examined over a two-year period, OEMC “failed to complete 201 or 57 percent” within 60 days. The average completion time was 67.3 days.

• Personnel assigned to the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention Information Center are supposed to notify COPA of use-of-force incidents, but have a “lack of understanding of notification guidelines” that render them “uncertain” about when to notify the agency charged with investigating allegations of police abuse. They need “clearer policy, guidance and training.”

• COPA exercises “inadequately-guided discretions in release materials other than those mandated” by the policy. Their “pursuit of transparency” is commendable, but “subjectivity and inconsistency” in the agency’s “treatment of these extra-policy matters may raise public concern about the rigor of its implementation,” the report states.

To ensure full compliance with the 60-day release policy, Witzburg recommended that COPA and CPD “co-develop” use of force “notification guidelines that are clear and binding” and train Crime Prevention Information Center staff to “execute” them.

She further recommended that COPA collaborate with OEMC and the Mayor’s Office on processes that “support timely delivery of materials requested” from OEMC and that the Mayor’s Office, the Law Department and COPA review the criteria for release, discern whether additional criteria or guidance should be concluded and update the policy accordingly.

COPA spokesman Ephraim Eaddy responded to the report by reiterating the agency’s “unwavering” commitment to the “timely public release of transparency materials.” He noted that the agency has released those materials in “more than 300 CPD use of force incidents since 2016.’’

“COPA remains resolute in its commitment to timely provide material to the public and does not deliberately delay release of material in the absence of legal prohibition,” Eaddy said in a statement.

“The inspector general’s report cited two incidents in which COPA’s release of material was delayed by one day as the result of administrative oversight. Even prior to the OIG review, COPA modified practices to address the issue. In all other incidents reviewed by the OIG, COPA reviewed and released relevant material in its possession within 60 days of the incident qualifying for release...COPA appreciates OIG’s review and recommendations and has or will modify processes to incorporate them.”

Witzburg noted Chicago was a “proactive national leader” in adopting the 60-day video release policy. But, she argued, this is no time to retreat from that leadership position.

“In the midst of the continuing, complex national conversation about police accountability, the city’s full vindication of the original intentions of the policy has never been more important or urgent,” Witzburg was quoted as saying in a press release.

COPA, CPD, and the OEMC, which runs Chicago’s 911 center, “must work together more effectively to meet the city’s transparency imperatives around use of force by the police,” Witzburg said.

“Solutions here depend upon the cooperative efforts of several city agencies, each of whom have acknowledged opportunities to improve the process. A failure to do so risks the city failing to meet its mandate to render public accountability for the use of force by Chicago Police,” she said.

On the day she recommended the 60-day release policy, then-Police Board President Lori Lightfoot told the Sun-Times: “There’s no question there’s a lot of anger, frustration and skepticism on the part of the public” triggered by the city’s decision to keep the McDonald shooting video under wraps for 13 months.

“By announcing a policy that is clear, transparent and written down and that releases information to the public faster than is the current practice, it is our hope it will be a step in the right direction in restoring public trust,” she said on that day.

Last week, COPA was accused of improperly — and inconsistently — ending some of its inquiries without reaching a conclusion.